The Two Fatal Mistakes of Teaching Kung Fu

21 11 2015

We have the art of doing Kung Fu, and then there is the art of teaching Kung Fu.

While closely related, the two are not equal, and as the cliche goes–skill in one does not equate to skill in the other. We are going to take this discussion to a deeper level than the normal generic explanation. I believe that not fully understanding the development of Kung Fu skill in oneself versus the development of Kung Fu skill in a student have terrible consequences. It could very well be the perfect explanation for the state of Chinese Martial Arts today. Please hear me out, before making a judgment about this view.

Mistake #1–Thinking there is no more to learn

In the Filipino arts is an expression, that the moment one believes his skill is “good enough” that martial artist’s skill begins to decline. There is always another level to an ever-growing onion.  In the martial arts, many focus on the attainment of rank. We foolishly refer to this pursuit as “finishing the system”, and then neglect to dig deeper than our own teacher’s research within an art. There are several ways to make this mistake:

  • Learning the forms of the system, and little else
  • Develop fighting skill that is completely unrelated to the skills of one’s system
  • Neglecting to utilize techniques from your system’s forms in fighting
  • Denial of, or shunning, the value of competitions and tournaments
  • Refusing to learn from another teacher or another school–even within your own system–or its inverse–
  • Adding more arts and systems to your repertoire arbitrarily
  • Immediately transitioning from learning the system directly to teaching the system
  • Failing to realize that your own personal skill in Kung Fu can become stronger, faster, more accurate, more instantaneous, and sharper
  • Desiring to keep the system exactly as it was taught to you, with no innovations or alterations or personalization

Simply put, many teachers have undertaken their teaching career prematurely. They are passing on to their students a snapshot of the classroom from the days when Sifu was a student, with no development or changes from Si Gung to Sifu to student. What a disservice! When the teacher believes there is nothing more to learn, he fails to see the beauty on the other side of the mountain. When going uphill, it is difficult to see that there is another plateau to the mountain. We often fail to reach the summit when we stop to rest and believe we’d gone “far enough”. It is only when we are never satisfied, always hungry for more, never tiring or becoming bored with our climb that one day we do actually reach the top. It is at this point, you are standing at the top and can see the bottom of the mountain on both sides, and realize that you’ve arrived. And here’s the thing about arriving at the point of mastery:  It always comes long after you thought you would, and no man can take you there. <— This is my problem with schools that award “Master” rank to a student. You simply cannot. Mastery is a climb that one must make alone. It is a point of self-realization that many others may not share with you–nor will they agree that you have arrived. But don’t worry, the reason most men do not believe you have arrived is because they have not reached that summit themselves, and did not accompany you. At the same time, men who have been there themselves will know, because they’ve seen what you’ve seen, they’ve tasted the bitter cold, the thin air, felt the burn in their thighs, and recognize the psychological high you share with them after reaching the peak.

This is the reason I believe most men abandon martial arts perfection in order to pursue easier goals that are more pleasing to the ego. Things like rank, titles, additional styles, multiples of ranks in other systems (without actually study–these men gain them through correspondence courses and weekend seminars), publicity and fame and popularity. They embellish accomplishments because they have none to be proud of. They are prone to rivalries and severed relationships. They abandon families and start their own groups to do it their way. They deny their histories and pretend to have traveled another path. Few men have earned their way to the title of Master, so they find ways to do it the quick, easy way–or they simply wait until they are too old to be questioned on their skill, and use Age-as-rank to strap on that title.

But a mediocre young man only grows into a mediocre old man. And this is the point where we begin our descent to the other side of the mountain, and the second flaw.

Mistake #2–Thinking there is more to teach

Teachers try to be everything to everyone. I recall a meme I had recently seen on social media. Something to the effect of “Martial arts teachers, aka career counselors, aka marriage counselors, aka dietician, aka historian, aka child disciplinarian, blah blah blah”.

How foolish. We are martial artists. And to explain it to a non-Martial Artist, that could mean one or several of many things:

  • A fighting coach
  • A fitness coach
  • An educator
  • A bodyguard
  • A surrogant parent
  • A cultural center curator
  • A tournament fighter’s coach
  • A self-defense expert
  • blah, blah, blah

It is either ignorance or arrogance for a teacher to think he knows it all. We simply do not. Life is too short for a Sifu to be a self-defense expert, a kickboxing coach, a fitness expert, a weight loss specialist, a chiropractor, an expert on ADHD, a weapons expert, etc.  If we are a true “Master” of the arts, there must be something we specialize in, within our arts. Perhaps we can teach the fundamentals of many things. But carry every student to the point of mastery in every aspect of our arts is not just foolish, it is dishonest. As a master, I must represent to my students that I have “mastered” everything in my system and know those things better than most of my peers. Honestly, no man can make that claim. This is how I believe Kung Fu styles ended up with so many weapons forms–while the Founder may have studied one or two weapons with a true master, 150 years later his system is teaching 15 weapons. In the meantime, all students get is a form with that weapon, and nothing more. Yet Kung Fu websites all boast 9, 10, 15 weapons. One can’t possibly excel at all of them.

What have you spent your career doing, within the arts? Fighting? Performing exhibitions? Performing Lion Dance? Kicking? Punching? Kickboxing? Teaching?

Yes, after 30 years of study in the arts, most of us should be qualified to call ourselves an “expert” in our respective styles. But an expert in what? Yes, you may know 40 forms, but you can’t possibly have mastered all 40 forms. I know close to 50, and I have spent nearly all of my Kung Fu training practicing 9. If a Jow Ga student came to me and wanted to learn the best of my Jow Ga, I would be cheating him to spend any length of time with forms other than those 9. Can I teach them? Sure, I can. If he wanted to perfect them–it would either be a solo effort, with me supervising–or I would send him to another Jow Ga Sifu whom I know has already perfected that skill. I love Lion Dance and can teach it. However, if an advanced student of mine loved it and wanted to perfect his ability and knowledge I would have to send him to another Si Hing once I had shown him all I knew.

And that, brothers and sisters ^^, is the point of the second fatal mistake in Kung Fu. Not realizing that one’s knowledge is not infinite. We must understand our limits, and be confident in our skills, but humble enough to know when we can not teach a student further than the boundaries of our knowledge and experience. We got a good example of this in last week’s fight between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm, when Rousey’s trainer attempted to teach her how to defeat Holm, who was an expert stand up fighter. Rather than understand his limits as a coach, he attempted to do it alone rather than bring in a real expert at stand up to take Rousey to the next level. I have seen the man move, and I can tell you, Ronda was training with a man she can beat.

Now, how many times have you seen Kung Fu Sifus bring students to a full-contact competition when that Sifu has never fought full contact himself?

I hope you get my point.

We can teach our students what we know, and what we’ve developed. However, we must also admit to ourselves what we are truly proficient and knowledgeable in, and limit what we teach to those things. If you find that that you need more research, keep training and climbing. Sometimes, you may need to climb more than one mountain. Sometimes, you reach old age while still climbing mountains. Pass the torch on to your students when you can no longer climb mountains, and let them elevate your art after you have taken it as far as you can go.

To recap, you must first develop and research and master you art as far as you can. Then secondly, you must teach what you know best–the heavily concentrated version of the best of your Kung Fu knowledge–to your students, and enlist other Sifus if you must. This is what keeps Kung Fu pure and strong–not pretending to know everything when you don’t.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.




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